Over the weekend, the math teacher had been dismissed, and the rest of the faculty only learned on Monday, when the vice principal introduced his replacement. He had written his own resignation, and he insisted to anyone, when he was willing to talk, that it had been his decision. But everyone knew he had been pressured; they only wondered what it was that kept him silent.
His replacement had never taught before, but he dressed better, had more self-confidence, and for once math classes appeared silent and busy. But others began to compare the school’s well-advertised hiring standards to the new teacher’s local college diploma, and wondered how he had such an in.
Then they asked what the old teacher had done. There were only rumors and they were easily denied. There had never been complaints or warnings, his students’ test scores were up to standards, in short nothing had been recorded against him, but he was gone.
Political minds reasoned: if the principal had wanted him removed, he would have prepared the ground and avoided the current morale problem. He never made sudden decisions. Therefore it had to have come from higher up.
Someone found out the new teacher had been tutor to a powerful family, and this fact was eagerly seized upon. Only a tutor is not a strong position. And, telling with an open expression of a late phone call the Saturday before his first day, the new teacher seemed the most bewildered of all.
In his studio, the painter would be garrulous and would talk without gesturing, keeping his hand to the canvas and not averting his eyes except to clean his brush. He would speak steadily at any length or fall silent, saying that question is too difficult while I am working, in the same slow voice. In front of the cameras he seemed innocent, and spoke too fast, with sudden facial expressions.
He had been living abroad but had never been able to learn the language. The slight puckering of his upper lip masked his missing front teeth, and his smile exposed them. Between two speeches, a librarian read translated a newspaper review of his paintings from another show, earlier that year, in that country.
The museum director was an old friend from twenty years before. With a yellow face and a great good-natured expression, he begin to sweat as he talked and repeatedly made a one-handed circular gesture. His eyes glittered and it was difficult to follow his train of thought. The mayor nudged his neighbor and started a conversation about food smiling with his blotchy, clownlike face. His belt hung below his large belly.
The museum director said in an almost angry tone, Your attention please, Mister Mayor, who fell silent. But he struggled to regain his balance. It had already been uncomfortable but now you could express it. People checked their watches, they shifted their weight from foot to foot, and their eyes moved around, looking nowhere in particular.
“I’m going to be a father!”
Had he never noticed how red his grinning brother’s face was? And stretched out all bumpy along the short length of his head. An old road with stones exposed and scars in the asphalt. At fifty, a new father, for the first time. And just three years ago the last divorce. This new one was young, she’d been driving a taxi when he met her, riding from the airport, returning from two years abroad. In two weeks they were spending a lot of time together, and only a month later he moved out of their mother’s house, and moved in with her.
Two pictures came to mind, both of their own father. Him, young, with suspicious eyes and cheeks above his innocent smile. Another, him content, holding on with each arm to the two grandchildren he had known. What kind of father would he have seemed at twenty-two. Does anyone ever know what they are doing?
He couldn’t help smiling back. “This has been a real full year in your life, hasn’t it?”
“Life gets fuller at our age. If you empty yourself out first! And I don’t know how it flows in, at all the cracks.”
That crewcut immobile on the top of his vigorous nodding head. He pushed on the panic bar and opened the security door and as he went downstairs he let onto the floor a short eight year old with malicious-looking teeth and her tongue protruding from between them.
The neighbors’ fight this time was violent. There was lots of noise and yelling. Even banging and stomping. She could hear it through her closed door. She turned her music off.
He lived across the hall and one door down. She couldn’t sit still. He looked so large and unmanageable. He didn’t keep himself clean. Would he hit her? The girl was screaming. His girlfriend, she recognized the voice, a little mousy one, she’d been around, always squinting. Hadn’t she been gaining weight? Could be pregnant.
With her door open, it was louder. She should confront them. But out in the hall, they seemed to be quiet. Maybe just write a note. She shouldn’t get involved. Back in her room, she wrote on a card. If there’s anything I can do, and the number of a crisis center. Just put it under their door. Then they’d do whatever with it. Out of her hands.
Maybe stick it in the crack? But then what if it made him violent. She didn’t want that thought. Don’t they do everything to isolate? And he might get her worse!
Outside their door, she heard something else. She blushed and went home. Don’t even know what to think.
She saw him that week, in the basement. He had a grin, his eyes going side to side everywhere. Large purple yellow and brown bruises on the palms and bakcs of his hands, which he rubbed together and nearly ran into her, as she got her mail.
She had been on her feet forever. And she was so tired and everything was against her. Doing the least things she had to lift her own lead weight. Her head hurt. Standing behind the counter, brewing coffee, was torture. She would trade one foot against the other, shifting, leaning. Couple customers, it wasn’t seven. Quiet, thank god.
A man came in with a gust of leaves; and the door thudded shut. He sat at the counter. Hands on either side of his cap he started talking.
It was some confused story. A new housemate, there was general conversation about drugs, it was her first week, and she said well sex is my drug. That was weird, and then she’s gone for days, and where did she work, was she talking about quitting when she moved in, not sure.
But today, a bang had woke him up, he thought it was a gun or fight or what, and he got out of bed and down the hall and it was her door slamming, the windows were open, it stank of nail polish, and her floor was covered with pairs of jeans. And the wind and the rain outside, and she was nowhere.
That had been an hour before, and he couldn’t get back to sleep. He propped the door and left.
He shut up and drank his coffee. No food, then left, and no tip. She shifted from foot to foot, curling her toes in pain whenever she stopped moving.
She asked him to move in. They’d known each other a week. She was bored at home, tied to the kid; he had debts and no job. It seemed like the best solution. Someone would be home, she could go play.
But then he got boring. He didn’t want a job. Or he said he did, but he wouldn’t make a resume, he wouldn’t make phone calls. He’d sit at home playing world of warcraft.
She guessed his passwords to snoop on him. But then she didn’t know how, and when she asked at work about it, they asked her why.
She gave one ultimatum, then another. She didn’t like being the bad guy, so she couldn’t follow through; but it felt good to draw a line. If the kid hadn’t liked him, maybe.
But then: it turned out his mother needed a property manager. Typical: getting bailed out by Mom. She offered him the job. But shouldn’t I get it; I have references, I’m responsible. It would be perfect: I could watch the kid myself.
He was happy to have her off his back while she worked on his mom. Who was also pliable. She was happy for her son.
Then they moved, she quit her job, and no more threats. He didn’t want to change. Why should he listen to her? Empty words are dangerous.
They broke up. But she couldn’t make him leave: he got along so well with her kid! The two of them were soulmates.
They could hear the crowd noise change. The musician did a test strum, approached the microphone. The auditorium had been about half full when they had left; better than expected. They evaded the dressing rooms, they found the empty room with the snack table.
There was a couch, and they fell on it together, one hand grabbing at her waist. She pushed it away, I have nothing to clean the, do you want to get all bloody? Her soft smile condescended. She put her cold hand against his belly.
He was flushed and stiff. His neck tendons stood out, fearfully. A rattle from the doorknob and they moved; and they were just the two of them, sitting apart, doing whatever. The musician’s student came in. She looked once and sat between them. She was just resting, taking deep breaths.
He took a newspaper from the floor. She caught his eye behind the student’s back, and smiled tenderly at him. She went to pour out water, How’s it sound out there? He’s playing great, it just got stuffy.
Got to leave the room, can get another drink nearby. He’d seen the place out the window. And then he could take a bus to the city center, and leave town right then. That was a plan.
He recalled how she had laughed, gaily, at some pun of the musician’s; and suddenly could see them at his age, ten years ago: they aren’t superior. Oh, I know them, I knew them all along.